A word to conjure with

Oxford Dictionaries have named their word of the year.

And it’s ‘post-truth’.

Like previous words of the year, it reflects our changing society.

Winners in the past have included ‘selfie’, ‘simples’ and ‘bovvered’.

But while these past winners seem to be more social and upbeat, ‘post-truth’ is different.

And when you look at the other words on the shortlist, it tells us a bit more about how the world looks in 2016.

There was ‘adulting’ (behaving like a responsible adult), ‘chatbot’ (a computer designed to communicate like a human) and ‘hygge’ (a Danish concept of cosiness and wellbeing).

All in line with previous years.

But others on the shortlist included ‘alt-right’ (extreme conservative views), ‘Brexiteer’ (I shouldn’t need to explain) and ‘woke’ (being alert to injustice, particularly racism).

There was even ‘coulrophobia’ – an extreme or irrational fear of clowns.

So, what do these choices tell us about today’s world?

For many, the rise of the alt-right in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK and even the need to become more alert to racism show the world is a more dangerous place.

And as for a fear of clowns, the spate of clown attacks around the world just heightens that sense of danger.

But, for me, ‘post-truth’ is the most dangerous concept of all.

The dictionaries define it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In short, the truth matters less than it did.

If you feel something is true (or false), then it doesn’t matter whether it is or not.

Even if all the evidence is stacked against you.

Which could have major implications.

In fact, it could make things a lot easier for copywriters like me.

In the past we had to justify any claims we made in adverts or marketing materials.

Even when we were appealing to the audience’s emotions.

Now, as long as the audience believes what we tell them, can we say anything?

Some might think so.

And they might start to test the theory.

So, you might ask, what harm would it do if occasionally we let our emotions get in the way of the truth?

After all, there have been plenty of examples of advertisers who did just that, by appealing to what consumers wanted to believe.

And, yes, when you’re talking about yoghurt or breakfast cereals it might seem trivial.

But what about pharmaceuticals?

Or politics?

Because when politicians routinely resort to blatant lies and appeal to emotions over facts, then it becomes increasingly dangerous.

And that’s not just ‘post-truth’.

It may well be post-everything.

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The power of language

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’.” – David Cameron

Politicians have always used language very carefully. Some, like Churchill, used it to inspire people (“We shall fight them on the beaches…” etc. ). Others, however, use it to cover up their true meaning.

George Orwell satirised this in his classic novel, ‘1984’, with the Newspeak propaganda of The Party and Big Brother. In the book, Orwell warns how language can be used to control people’s thoughts and ideas through ‘doublespeak’, with phrases such as ‘War is peace’ and ‘Ignorance is strength’ used to brainwash the population into supporting the rule of The Party.

The way current politicians are using (and abusing) language is something that’s caught my attention recently. One example, which has been adopted by parties on all sides of the political spectrum, is this:

Hard-working families

Politicians have been using this phrase to describe the people they’re committed to supporting for the past couple of years.

There are two distinct messages I get from the phrase. The first is that you can’t just aspire to being a worker any more. If you want to have representation in parliament, you have to be a ‘hard’ worker. This, to me, has a sinister underlying message. It says: if you’re not prepared to go beyond what you’re paid for, then you’re undeserving of our support and our interest.

In the past, it’s been the unemployed who have been regarded in this way by predominantly right-wing parties. Now, it seems, people who are working, but are not ‘hard’ working, are being repositioned alongside so-called ‘scroungers’. All in a simple phrase.

Passively tolerant

This is the latest addition to modern Newspeak. As you can see from the quote at the top of the page,  David Cameron recently used it to justify plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.

And, again, I found myself asking what it actually meant. My conclusion? Well, I think it’s what what we used to simply call being tolerant – a trait the British used to be rightly proud of. But when you’re trying to tell people that being tolerant simply isn’t good enough, then adding the word ‘passively’ does the trick. Because being passive is regarded as a sign of weakness. And we don’t want to seem weak  do we? By association, tolerance suddenly becomes less of a desirable quality. So, let’s be intolerant…

That’s why language is so powerful. And, in the wrong hands, so dangerous. George Orwell understood that. Let’s hope there are enough people around nowadays who share his eye for the detail of language and how it’s used. And his healthy cynicism.

The problem with jargon

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions (Photo credit: Gavin Llewellyn)

I saw an interesting infographic from Monster.com today, which showed that candidates are turned off by jargon in job ads. This came as no surprise to me. As someone who’s made a living out of writing recruitment communications of all kinds for 26 years, I’ve always tried to avoid using jargon.

Why? Well, according to the dictionary, jargon is defined as: “Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.”

In other words, jargon is deliberately confusing. So why would you choose to use it in a context that requires clarity? Particularly when you can’t even be sure whether the jargon you’re using is something other people in your industry would recognise, or if it’s specific to your organisation.

A lot of my recruitment communications experience has come in business sectors that thrive on jargon – IT, investment banking, accounting, But this doesn’t mean other sectors are immune from it. Local authorities, government departments and the NHS all have jargon of their own that can alienate someone who isn’t in the know. And that’s the problem with jargon – it alienates people, which is the last thing you want from a recruitment ad.

Having said that, there are certain occasions when it can actually be useful. If you need to recruit someone with specific skills and you don’t want to waste your time reading through applications from people who don’t have the right industry expertise, then jargon can be a useful filter. But only if you know for certain that the right people will understand it.

I’ve taken briefs from clients who litter their conversation with jargon – acronyms are a particular favourite in certain business sectors. And the rule I’ve always stuck to is that if I have to ask what a particular piece of jargon means, then the majority of the audience will need to do the same. Which means it shouldn’t be in your marketing.

So that’s why I wasn’t surprised by the news that candidates were turned off by jargon – I’ve always regarded it as common sense not to use jargon. But it’s nice to have the stats to back up what I’ve been telling clients for years.